shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass


wonder which translation Steve Martin prefers?

Jonathan Yardley revisits his favorite translation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, a play for which I happen to have a giant-sized soft spot. He talks about why Brian Hooker's translation most interests him, who Hooker was and why he translated the play at all:

Many English translations are available, including those by Christopher Fry and Anthony Burgess, but the Hooker version is the one I grew up with, and reading any other (or watching a performance by anyone other than Ferrer) is unthinkable to me. Hooker's translation is available now only in the Bantam Classics edition, which unfortunately does not include Clayton Hamilton's introduction to the original 1923 version.

Unfortunately, that is, because Hamilton explains how Hooker's translation came to be. He is little known now except, presumably, among scholars of the theater, but in the first decades of the 20th century Hamilton was among this country's most prominent and influential theater critics; his many books include "The Theory of the Theater and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism" (1910), "Problems of the Playwright" (1917) and "So You're Writing a Play" (1935). Most important to the subject at hand, he was lifelong friends with the celebrated actor, theater manager and producer Walter Hampden. As boys in the late 1890s they "used to squander the after-midnight gas, reading and rereading the magic text of this entrancing play," which had first been produced in Paris in 1897, and a quarter-century later Hamilton persuaded Hampden to mount a production with a new English translation, the existing ones failing to capture "the zest, the fire, the spontaneity, the brilliancy, the lyric rapture of Rostand."

For this Hamilton turned to Hooker, a poet who is now as forgotten as everyone else in this undertaking. Hamilton correctly writes "that Brian Hooker has succeeded in a literary task of extraordinary difficulty, that he has written a text which is both speakable and readable, and that he has made the vivid spirit of Edmond Rostand accessible . . . to English-reading lovers of belles-lettres who are not able to read French."

The "vivid spirit" to whom Hamilton refers was not yet 30 years old when his famous play appeared. Born in Marseilles in 1868, Rostand grew up in privileged circumstances that permitted him to indulge his love for writing. He published poetry and had three plays produced before "Cyrano," but the overwhelming success of his masterpiece seems to have immobilized him. Nothing he wrote in the rest of his life came even close to "Cyrano" in either literary or commercial terms, and at his death in Paris in 1918 he seems to have been a frustrated and disappointed man.

Had it not been for Brian Hooker, it is possible that Rostand's great play might have remained little more than a bewitching rumor in the English-speaking world. Before his translation was presented on Broadway in 1923, with Hampden in the title role, only three productions of the play had appeared in New York, and only one of these in (presumably bad) English. But Hooker's "Cyrano" ran for 232 performances -- an exceptionally good run for just about anything in translation -- and Hampden must have loved it, because he appeared in four more productions between 1926 and 1936. Not until 1946, when Ferrer played the role (and produced the show), did Broadway see anyone else's "Cyrano."

Here's a poem by Hooker:


There should be music in a place like this,
And patter of delicate feet upon the dew
Dancing, and shy sweet laughter flashing through
Song, as a dream is broken by a kiss.
Under such blossomy shade might Artemis
Lean down to learn what warm-haired Leto knew,
Or Dionysus lead his clamorous crew
Where the cool stream should bathe their burning bliss.

Ashes of dreams! . . . Turn yonder, and behold
The Giant of our modern faith; whereby
Ourselves, grown wiser than the gods of old,
Poison the western wind with alchemy,
And write with lightning on the midnight sky
The golden legend of his lust for gold.

- Brian Hooker (1880-1946)

(Yeah, short hiatus, huh? Ultimatums to one's self work!)


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